Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lent II

Mark 8

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

A Lenten study by Zoom? It must be 2021.

First of all, I want to thank our intrepid learners, braving a virtual wilderness in Lent, confronted by muting and unmuting and the awkwardness of the PDF screenshare. If you don’t have a hot clue what this means, don’t feel badly—there will be a bright moment when we study in-person once more.

Evening two of this particular study is a personal favourite. Normally, I get to haul ten pounds of books from my office: Greek and Hebrew Bibles, Bibles in translation, interlinear Bibles, parallel Bibles, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, Bible commentaries, and at least one exhaustive concordance (that’s the title, not the result of all the heavy lifting). This time we had to make do with pictures of the books, and the confession that all these books have been rendered useless by one or two websites.

One tradition we did not lose was the awkward photocopy, the reproduction of a vital page from one of these resources. In the real world—as any teacher will tell you—these handouts are often copies of copies, with each successive generation of copy less legible than the last. In the best of the worst, you will have annoying dark borders, or even a photocopy of someone’s fingers. And through the miracle of technology, I was able to recreate the experience by showing my Zoom friends just one such handout.

The handout is called “The Growth of the Jesus Movement,” and it appears in a book called The Five Gospels, written by Funk, Hoover, et al. In this one handy chart, we see how the contents of the New Testament emerge over time, with books and sources neatly mapped out, and arrows to indicate lineage of the material. It shows us, for example, that Mark supplies material to Matthew and Luke, but Matthew and Luke do not reciprocate. This, then, tells us that Mark was written before the others, and served as a source.

Another handy part of this handout is a backdrop of cross-hatching, showing the types of material that went into the writing. One section is the parables and aphorisms of Jesus (aphorisms are his short, pithy statements, like “no prophet is welcome in his hometown”). Another section is stories about Jesus, circulated among his followers, and the final section is called “Primitive Christian Gospel,” falling mostly upon John, but touching each of the rest of the Gospels.

So what is it? What is this “primitive Christian Gospel” that lies behind most of the New Testament? I guess we should start by setting aside our 21st century understanding of the word primitive, which we take to mean crude, simple, or basic. Whenever I tell people that my great-great-great-great grandpappy was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, they give me that look that says “primitive huh? I can see it.” For our purposes today, and in the realm of biblical study, primitive means ancient, earliest, or original. So the primitive Christian Gospel is the Gospel as it was first introduced, or first shared.

And I share all this because our passage comes pretty close to giving us a glimpse of this Primitive Christian Gospel:

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

Before we go further, it should be noted that this passage is among the most misused parts of the Bible. Too many were led to believe that “denying themselves” meant giving power to others, particularly unscrupulous leaders. It is important to underline that any self-denial we engage in is for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, not leaders or churches. It should also be noted that you can only give things up if you have them in the first place, meaning extra caution is required when preaching self-denial among the most vulnerable.*

The first primitive element to this passage is the ideal of aligning our lives with Christ and the Gospel. St. Paul tells us that through baptism we “put on Christ,” or “clothe ourselves in Christ.” (Gal 3.27) And then Paul takes this a step further when he urges us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Col 3.12) So this is the first part of this primitive Gospel, to deny ourselves the opposite of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and follow the way of Jesus instead. That’s the first part.

The second part of this primitive Gospel also begins in baptism and finds voice through St. Paul. In Romans he uses that “you better listen” voice when he says “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6.3) Now he has our attention, he shares the Good News:

We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life.

Maybe this is where primitive goes from “ancient” back to our more familiar meaning, which is simple. I’m not saying that following Christ is simple—in fact, following Christ makes our lives much more complicated. Living for others, being intentional, being righteous, all of these complicate our lives rather than making our lives simpler. What makes the primitive Gospel simple is the way it appears in our lives.

At baptism, you put on Christ, and were dedicated to follow in his way. Likewise, at baptism you experienced death and resurrection with him, raised that you might walk in newness of life. In other words, the challenge given to the disciples—deny yourselves, pick up your cross, lose your life for me—all these happened at baptism. The moment we were marked as God’s alone, we lost our lives for Christ and the Gospel and were saved.

I share all this, in part, to help us recapture the primitive (original) Gospel that changed the world. People learned that Jesus set aside his life for the sake of others and were transformed. Peter Abelard said that simply hearing the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection could turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, dedicated to God alone. And the message is just as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago. People are searching for meaning, for connection, for something to give themselves to, and God is standing by, ready to show them newness of life in Christ Jesus. All we need to do is share the story.

Part of the reason we study the Bible is precisely because it is a long and complex document. And we tend to reread the parts we like and set aside the rest. But study, the most helpful study, will simplify our understanding and remind us of the primitive meaning, the meaning that is ancient and earliest, the meaning that first led countless souls to the faith. It led countless souls to the faith, and through faith to salvation, walking each day in newness of life. Amen.

*Tests For Preaching B, p. 210


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